Choir and String Orchestra / Foreign Language / Extended Techniques

This study addresses several different elements and issues one may encounter as a conductor. The piece presented is written for choir and string orchestra in a language foreign to most (a Sámi language) and utilises extended playing techniques in both the choir and the orchestra.

Muohta – Language of snow

by Nils Henrik Asheim

Written for choir and string orchestra in 2017, Nils Henrik Asheim’s “Muohta – Language of snow” is structured in 18 small movements, or miniatures, each drawing inspiration from Sámi words used to describe or define snow in different conditions or with different characteristics. The title of the work is the common Sámi word for snow and the subsequent words used as the titles to each movement were chosen to somehow convey Asheim’s personal experience of snow whilst also demonstrating the Sámi cultural relation to snow.

In his article about the piece, Reading the surface: an introduction to Muohta, Simon Cummings notes that “a simple example of this ‘mirroring’ of personal experience can be heard in the way Asheim utilises the performers, using the strings to provide an abstract environment or ‘landscape’ that is then ‘inhabited’ by people or other creatures represented by the choir.”

Using a language largely unknown to an international audience, makes the words function more as sound elements rather than lyrics. And how Asheim treats the words, by fragmenting and deconstructing them into syllables or single phonemes, further emphasises this inkling. 

This work is characterised by a great variety of extended techniques and also by a great variety of textural elements. This textural variety encompasses not only dense contrapuntal writing but also pointillism, ostinato and poly-ostinato textures. 

In some movements, this variety of textural elements seem to convey a connection to the various kinds of snow conditions described in the piece, while in other movements the relationship is more ambiguous which seems to sustain the idea that Asheim does not intend for the music to be “naturalistic” or “authentic” representation of the snow conditions but rather a personal and “poetic” interpretation.

You can download the written analysis, Simon Cumming’s article Reading the surface: an introduction to Muohta*, a watermarked version of the score and a glossary list here:

Thanks to Simon Cummings and the publisher Pelikanen forlag for letting us use their article.

In the videos below you can watch Nils Henrik Asheim in action with the Norwegian Soloist Choir, Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and conductor Grete Pedersen, rehearsing and discussing the piece. 

This case study has shown to exemplify how much a conductor needs to be involved with understanding the music to be able to do a good job. Without extensive knowledge and interest in the pieces one performs, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be any good at all.

We recommend that you first watch Muohta in concert, to get an idea of what the music sounds like before you dig into the details of it. 

Muohta in Concert

Muohta: the Process 

Many thanks to Nils Henrik Asheim, conductor Grete Pedersen, the Norwegian Soloist Choir and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra for letting us document their rehearsals and for talking to us about this music.

*Cummings, Simon. (2020). Reading the surface: an introduction to Muohta. In H.Borchgrevink (Ed.), Lydkilder. Tekster omkring Nils Henrik Asheims musikalske praksis. Stavanger: Pelikanen forlag.

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